An Eye on Biometrics

June 26, 2019
Biometric recognition is becoming one of the most powerful tools airports can use to increase security and improve the traveler experience.

According to the Sita 2019 Passenger IT Insights study, travelers are becoming more comfortable with the ways technology allows them to progress through the airport. The report states the number of passengers moving through automatic passport control jumped to 44 percent in 2018, which is more than double from 2017.

The report states technology usage is highest for passengers when booking flights and checking in. Almost half of them utilizing a kiosk to check in are also now option for self-bag tagging.

Gary McDonald, president of the Americas for Materna, said North American travelers are getting more comfortable with technology. While Millennials are comfortable using new things, the business traveler community is also starting to embrace new technology coming onto the scene.

There is starting to be an understanding of technology as long as that technology improves the process,” he said.

The company did trials at Miami International Airport (MIA) and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) with self-bag drops. McDonald said the self-bag drops are doing three times the amount of checking compared to the agent desks.

“There has to be a small amount of agent desks kept because of the personal touch and the people that need the customer service,” he said.

Adding biometrics to the drops is an additional benefit to speed up the self-drop process. McDonald said the company is putting 176 machines in Denver International Airport (DEN) that can be fitted with biometrics and Gatwick Airport is implementing it now.

Walking biometrics is also coming onto the scene, which adds more speed to the process.

"You don’t have to stop and stare at the camera,” McDonald said. “If the algorithm in the camera is such that picks you up while you’re walking and you don’t have to stop and then the invasion on that person doesn’t feel as bad.”  

Over the course of the journey, travelers reported higher satisfaction across all facets when utilizing technology compared to traditional processes.

Sherry Stein, head of technologies for the Americas for Sita, said there is an increased demand for self-service options for travelers, which is driving a shift in the marketplace.

“In 2017, we asked our airline and airport partners what projects they had underway looking at biometrics and single token travel and there were about 30 percent of the airlines and airports that were looking at single token travel,” she said. “That jumped exponentially over the last year to more than 70 percent of those providers because 92 percent of travelers have said they’d be willing to participate in a process like that.”

Stein said the capability of implementation of self-service in North American airports is there. Biometrics and facial recognition technology matured significantly in recent years, but there are still regulatory hurdles.

“The last airport in the U.S. was built in 1995 and it was built before 9/11, before the introduction of TSA and those security processes, so there’s a lot of rework and rethinking that has to take place about how those processes all come to bear and become part of that integrated and automated self-service type of a solution,” she said. “I’m not sure we’ll ever see a day where people can walk through without having to have their bags screened, but if we can get closer to that or have a higher number of trusted travelers and known travelers, then that does become viable.”

Tony Chapman, director of product management for airport systems at Collins Aerospace, said biometrics is growing beyond its initial uses as the technology has matured. Airport technology has changed and bandwith has become cheaper.  

“Biometrics, the technology as a whole has increased in accuracy rates and performance while at the same time the cost has come down dramatically,” he said.

Christopher Gilliand, director of innovation, travel solutions for the Vancouver Airport Authority, said the BorderExpress system was developed when processing times started to reach two to three hours at YVR doing the busy travel months. 

“Passenger traffic continues to increase. We can’t keep up expanding our facilities. Maximizing your facilities is really important,” he said. “To continue traffic, we need to maximize our assets better.” 

In February, the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) updated its border security requirements to include fingerprint capture for travelers who have a visa to enter the country.

“The use of biometrics in other parts of our airports and operations will continue to allow us to increase the amount of passengers using our facilities without having to build new facilities,” Gilliland said. “We’re going to be able to get people through quicker and with a better customer experience.”

Benji Hutchinson, vice president of federal operations for NEC Corp. of America, said biometrics plays a key role in the discussions surrounding the customer experience in the airport. By taking away friction points in the traveler journey through the terminal, it moves people through the security and into their gate hold area in an efficient manner.

“There’s a big discussion going on about frictionless, seamless travel and how do we make that customer journey, that customer experience better through the implantation of some of these processes so we can decrease the friction, decrease the point of which where somebody needs to interact with a machine or a human being or security official or a line or a queue,” he said. “A lot of these airports and airlines and other stakeholders are wanting to decrease the friction. We’ve got a whole new generation of people who are comfortable with mobile technology and interacting with different platforms and they want a better experience.

“They don’t want to be stopped; they want to move seamlessly.”

Hutchinson cited Delta Air Line’s biometrics program in Terminal F at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport as a successful example of how biometrics can work to better the experience. You can show up for an international flight, check in to the flight at kiosk using your face. Then you can drop your bag and do automatic bag drop off using your face again.

Your face is used again to process through security and then board your plane using your face, meaning you don’t need to pull out a passport or boarding pass.

“You wouldn’t have to start and stop,” he said. It wouldn’t be like standing in from of the machine for five to 10 seconds. It would be less than two seconds.

Feedback from the program has been very positive, Hutchinson said, and acceptance levels are high. It even cut the loading time in half for an A380.

“People tend to enjoy or appreciate the tradeoff of their data in this particular instance of an opt-in perspective for a more security and convenience,” he said. 

Increasing passenger volumes at airports creates a challenge. Stein said so many security processes remain manual or paper-driven, so a lot of work is still needed to better integrate the technology.

“If you create and experience that creates a value proposition for the traveler, they’re definitely willing to opt-in,” she said.

Stein said early adopters of technology have driven the initial growth of new technology in airports. With more digital natives traveling and consuming, she said there’s an expectation there will be capabilities to utilize a smart phone in an airport. By using the tools they’re already utilizing in other parts of their lives, she said it makes them more willing to opt into a program.

“There’s also the speed and efficiency in processing times that also brings,” Stein said. “Most people, if given the option of a longer line or a shorter line are going to choose the shorter one.”

Hutchinson said biometrics are a benefit to smaller airports as well given the additional layers of security it provides. Humans have a 50 percent chance of properly identifying someone in a picture they don’t know who is in front of them and about a 60 percent chance if they do know the person. As the day wears on, Hutchinson said that number goes down as staff gets tired.

“From the enhancement of the passenger journey, more and more people are interested in it because the future is bright for how the technology can be used,” he said. “Imagine going to a VIP lounge even in a smaller or midsize airport where you wouldn’t have to stop and talk to the individual at the front desk and pull out your passport and your boarding pass. It would be automated. You simply walk in and have a drink or a plate of food.”

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) created and implemented its own biometrics system in 2018 called veriScan.

Goutam Kundu, senior vice president of technology and chief information officer for MWAA, said leaders opted to build the program after they were unable to find a product on the market to fit the needs of the airport.

“It couldn’t be built by a vendor,” he said. “It needed airline participation, it needed a lot of collaboration with the government entities and it needed the airports.”

Kundu said the veriScan system utilizes iPads with software loaded onto them. They take facial biometric information and verify it without needing to substantially reconfigure the terminal.

“These gates are not configured for these elaborate mantraps,” he said. “The biggest expense for airports is the physical infrastructure. Bringing cable, bringing conduit into these gates.”

Since implemented, Kundu said the system has a 98.5 percent accuracy rate with more than 111,000 passengers having used it. MWAA is working with airlines to utilize the system in other ways to utilize it.

“This is sophisticated software loaded onto an iPad. How simple is that,” he said. “It can be deployed within a week at over 100 gates, it doesn’t require any cables, it doesn’t require any major civil engineering.”

Stein said Orlando International Airport has been a good example of where leaders are working to get everyone to embrace biometric exit and entry. It’s a growing trend that will continue through 2019 and the next couple years as CBP reaches for its goal of 97 percent of all international travelers biometrically screened through the U.S. exit process by 2023.

“We’ll start to see collaboration and a big emphasis on how we all work together across private sector and public sector to help make that happen,” she said.

Address public concerns

Biometrics has come under more scrutiny by the general public in the past year, with reports of concerns about data collection and social media outcries on the issue.

Hutchinson said airports and airlines are engaging the public to make sure everyone understands the process and that everything is transparent. They’ve even put up signs in airports to explain what facial recognition is and that it’s being used.

“For American citizens, it is all optional, so it’s all opt-in,” he said. “They make that very explicit in the areas of the terminal where facial recognition is being used. If someone is uncomfortable with it, they can opt out and default to the original paper-based or phone-based process.”

Hutchinson said the National Institute of Standard and Technology results being involved in those tests is very important

“We spend a lot of our time and effort engaging with industry trade group and privacy groups to make sure the best rules and regulations are put on the books,” he said. “We try to get involved with that dialogue to make sure everybody understands how the technology works.”

Stein said stakeholders involved with biometric rollouts are all being mindful of privacy issues and working to make sure concerns are addressed and travelers know what information is being collected, used and destroyed at the end of the process.

She said they need to make sure it’s an opt-in process so all participants are voluntary and can opt-out if they’re not comfortable. When it comes to biometric exit, it’s also important to note no new information is collected that U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t already have.

“The CBP takes the information it already has on file and the photo they already have on file from when foreign visitors enter the country and when U.S. citizens apply for a passport or when anyone has used automated passport control or entered the country through the immigration or border management touch points and they build a gallery of those photos,” she said. “When someone is using a biometric system, we just capture that photo, send it to CBP, they do all the matching on their systems with a unique identifier that’s an alphanumeric code. No PII changes hands, no confidential information is disclosed.”

Stein said the industry and the organizations involved with rolling out these new biometric processes need to get the message to the public on this technology and how it’s being used.

“We work with IATA, ACI, other groups like Biometrics Institute, the IBIA, CBP and Congress just to make sure the public knows and understands and that all the due diligence is in place to make sure the technology is being used responsibly.”

Gilliland said it’s important passengers are informed and consent biometrics programs. It’s also important airports never save the data it collects.

Gilliland said it’s important the governments are aligned and there are some basic standard data protections in place as biometrics become more prevalent in the airport environment.

“Normally we would fly to Washington or Ottawa and give a PowerPoint presentation, but this time we decided to pack up our lab,” he said. “We took the government officials, we gave them a test case so they could go through the process and they could see firsthand how an end-to-end solution would work.”

Scanning future needs  

Stein said the company is doing trials with Qantas in Brisbane and Qatar Airways in Doha on a mobile token to create a persistent enrollment for travelers. The digital passport would be reusable for travelers and it’s just starting to become a reality.

“Every solution today including the traveler verification service works within one airport or one trip or within one country, but when you get to your final destination, you still have to show your paper passport” she said. “Now the next bit becomes how do we extend this capability to work across multiple airports, across multiple governments and to be reusable for trips so you can build a history and have a reputational score or sense of trust because you’ve used the process repeatedly without having to re-enroll.”

McDonald said there are two airports looking to test biometrics by the end of the year for domestic flights as well.

 "That's where you're going to see the greater adoption," he said. 

Gilliland said it’s important to consider how you lay out the kiosks and how it will impact passenger queues once put in place.

“I always kind of joke that if you came to our border hall and pulled up the carpet it would look like Swiss cheese,” he said. “We’ve constantly adjusted and refined how we placed the kiosks just to make sure that when we sell this solution, airports are getting the best possible.”

Hutchinson said airports considering biometrics need to be cognizant of the type of technology they’re using. Look at the reliability of the technologies available to determine who can deliver the best results.

“Nobody wants to have a lot of false alarms or false positives,” he said.

Hutchinson you should also look at your choke points in the airport where the technology makes sense and also discuss it with federal officials trying to implement the program.

“They’re very eager to see this program rolled out from a biometric entry and entrance perspective,” he said. “They’re out there on the road talking to everyone trying to raise awareness.”

Kundu said airports should make sure to work with all entities impacted with a biometrics system before picking a product to make sure it’s a solution for everyone. He also suggested to look at total overall cost, not just cost of implementation.

Kundu also recommended keeping the solution as simple as possible.

“Biometrics is an emerging technology,” he said. “You don’t want to put all of your investment into a set of solutions when this technology is emerging.”